Can LA Kings rediscover Stanley Cup 'spark' with 'subtle' offseason changes?

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(Photo by Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)
(Photo by Aaron Poole/NHLI via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – Since late April the Los Angeles Kings say they have tried to make organizational changes to get them back to Stanley Cup contention.

They haven’t been large and obvious differences with big trades or mega signings. They’ve more been on a small scale. According to team staffers they’re too minute to notice and with some too secretive to discuss publicly.

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“I wouldn’t say wholesale method changes but there have been subtle directional changes,” said team amateur scouting director Mark Yannetti. “Maybe taking it further down the road in some areas but in terms of the methodology, it hasn’t changed the macro, but it’s certainly changed the micro.”

After the Kings were ousted from the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the San Jose Sharks in five games, general manager Dean Lombardi publicly tasked his organization to innovate again and find “the spark, the challenge that was there seven years ago and we were coming from the gutter.”

In 2015 the Kings failed to qualify for the playoffs, one year after winning their second Stanley Cup.

When Lombardi took over as Los Angeles GM in 2006, the team figured out several ways to beat the competition through advanced drafting techniques and a reliance on a bruising puck possession style before it became common in the NHL.

The Kings won two Stanley Cups, one in 2012 and another in 2014 largely based on their ability to be ahead of the curve. Getting to that point didn’t seem overly difficult for LA and in fact the organization relished its ability to quickly become the league’s gold standard. Staying there has been more trying – especially in the salary cap era

Now the Kings find themselves in a strange spot – with one of the best cores in the NHL all under long-term contract, but also with a salary cap situation that gives them minimal flexibility moving forward and few prospects in their system that came from years of trading away draft picks.

“We had that success. And the one thing is we found it’s a lot easier to climb the ladder and get to the top than it is to stay at the top,” said Kings vice president of hockey operations and director of player personnel Michael Futa. “Everyone’s expecting the same thing to roll, but it’s a different group of guys. There’s no Justin Williams. We have to find our own Justin Williams. He’s one of the greatest leaders and greatest friends I’ve ever met, but we have to find those guys within our own system and build them internally because in a salary cap world when you’re paying guys who deserve to get what they get, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick all of them, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson will get their money. We have to develop internally and we never got away from it but now it’s finding better ways.”

A lot of this starts with drafting and developing. Under Lombardi the Kings used to be one of the best teams at identifying talent and then developing it for their puck possession system.

They also were one of the first teams to liberally take players who had gone through the draft once before. This is how they landed Trevor Lewis (first-round) in 2006 along with Wayne Simmonds (second-round) and Alec Martinez (fourth-round) in 2007. They also snagged Tanner Pearson in the first-round of the 2012 draft.

All players turned into productive, longtime Kings or assets used to plug a hole through a trade. When other teams started the catch onto this method, the Kings no longer had an advantage. Since Pearson’s draft year in 2012, no player picked by the Kings has played for them in the NHL. The only player picked by the Kings who has played in the NHL is Hudson Fasching, a 2013 fourth-round pick, who is property of the Buffalo Sabres. He’s only played seven games.

The most recent Hockey’s Future rankings listed the Kings at 26th amongst 30 teams as far as players in their system.

The Kings are high on forward Adrian Kempe, a 2014 first-round draft pick, but he may not be ready to make the team next season.

Because the Kings’ talent pipeline has slowed, the team hasn’t been able to address needs with cheaper players on entry-level deals as some of their more accomplished players have gotten raises. This has made LA’s salary cap situation difficult. According to General Fanager the Kings have $669,773 of salary cap space for the start of next season.

“You can only innovate so much, you can’t do that anymore. In terms of at the table I think those innovations, I think they’re becoming more and more tapped out. I think the innovations and creativity we maybe got static and too traditional – I think that’s a bad word. I know it permeates through hockey – other sports as well but hockey especially. We got too traditional in our thinking,” Yannetti said. “We had a model, an innovative model that worked obviously very well. I have two rings in my closet at home, but the problem with that success is that blueprint becomes a very static blueprint.”

Said Futa, “I think we went from being the best to being caught. Now we have to become better again. That’s just being innovative and that’s one thing when you talk to Dean, being innovative isn’t an issue as far as finding a different way or a different level you can go to find an edge.”

Unfortunately for Los Angeles a lot of their prior ‘win now’ trades – along with some contract mistakes like Mike Richards – from the past hampered their 2016 offseason decisions. The Kings had just four draft picks and no first-round pick, third-round pick or sixth-round selection – stemming from trades to keep them afloat.

They were also forced to devote a lot of their time towards re-signing forward Milan Lucic, which didn’t happen based on their precarious salary cap situation.

Los Angeles made a lot of smaller value moves, but none were earth-shattering. They brought in defensemen Tom Gilbert and Zach Trotman. They also added forward Teddy Purcell.

The only big decision they made was giving Dustin Brown’s captaincy to Anze Kopitar, a moved Brown voice his displeasure with.

But none of these choices could be considered long-term mistakes that will hamper the team years down the road in order to prolong one more shot at a Cup.

Even though the last two years haven’t gone as hoped for LA, they still have a bevy of talent at the NHL level. Last season Doughty won the Norris Trophy and Kopitar won the Selke Trophy. Quick was a Vezina Trophy finalist. 

“Our window hasn’t closed. Our core is still one of the youngest in the league and as far as I’m concerned they’re in the top three-to-four in the league,” Futa said.

There is the possibility these shifts may have come one year too late for LA. They gave up major assets for Lucic – in goaltender Martin Jones and a 2015 first-round pick along with young defenseman Colin Miller who played 42 games last year with the Boston Bruins – and essentially got one year and no playoff round wins from the hulking winger. It takes years to re-stock a prospect cupboard and LA likely won’t be in position to start doing this until next summer.

But the Kings have re-recognized their strengths as an organization, and this understanding should be the first step towards getting back to prominence provided they have the time and patience to get to that point again with the current group in place.

“Dean is notorious for calling people out – he’s a very passionate guy,” Futa said. “You have so much respect for his mind and passion for the game that you buy into his passion and his blueprint and we all have developed our own individual traits we bring to the table that we think, whether it’s the ability to evaluate players or teach players. Everyone has their own thing off the ice they bring to the mix. We have to continue to get better at that too.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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